Last winter I attended an Evensong service at my beloved Parish, Trinity Church, Asbury Park (please follow the link for more information about our loving and dynamic congregation). Our Assisting Ecumenical Pastor, Rev. Bill Forbes told a marvelous parable about suffering. I asked him if I could reference it and he generously e-mailed me his sermon transcript.
Rev. Forbes knew about suffering. He had been battling pancreatic cancer for the past five years. Yesterday, his suffering ending and he went home to his Father's arms.
He was an ebullient fixture at Trinity since he and his wife found us several years ago upon their retirement to Ocean Grove. Now mind you, Trinity is an Episcopal Church and Rev. Forbes was a Presbyterian minister. But, as so many do, they fell in love the minute they walked through our doors. He was fond of describing Trinity, a haven of diversity, as "God's Great Experiment. A place where everyone is truly welcome, even a Presbyterian!"
As someone who is living with a chronic illness, I was inspired by the humility and grace he demonstrated in his own journey through uncertainty. Today in one of several published tributes to him, I noted this quote. Rev. Forbes had written, in the summer of 2008, “None of us knows how many days we will be granted. As you look into the mirror each and every day, take time to marvel that you have been created in the image of God. Count your blessings often…Share yourself abundantly with those who need encouragement, hope, and care…Keep that twinkle in your eye and help the world learn to laugh ... May God continue to bless you and keep you as you claim the gift of life each day!”
That really says it all. I am grateful to have known him.
Here is part of my post from last year:
Evensong this past Sunday was a gift of tranquility and grace. Candle lit, with the voices of dozens of guest choristers resounding through our century old church, it was beautiful physically and spiritually.
Our parish’s Assisting Ecumenical Priest, Rev. William Forbes, delivered a moving homily and related this parable:
There was a woman whose happiness was shattered by a great and sudden sorrow. She was torn apart by the death of her only brother, a fine man, who died suddenly in the prime of his life. In her anguish she cried out, “O God, why?” But there was no answer—only silence. She couldn’t live with the silence and she decided that she must go in search of an answer for herself. She thought that she would seek the wise counsel of the holy one who lived in the uncharted wilderness. And so she set out on her journey. She hadn’t gone too far when she came upon an old man sitting alone on a bench beside the road. He was weeping. “Why do you weep, my friend?” said the woman as she paused next to him.
“I have suffered a terrible loss,” he replied. “I have not enjoyed good health for some time now, but the joy and meaning of my life was my dear wife and, unexpectedly she has now died and my heart is broken. I don’t know if I can bear such pain.”
“I, too, have suffered a great loss,” said the woman. “Tell me, do you know why God allows such things to happen?”
He replied, “Some of my friends tell me that I am suffering for my own misdeeds. ‘God is just,’ they say, so my loss must be what I deserve.”
“Do you believe that?” asked the woman. “No, I do not. . .” he said.
“Nor do I,” said the woman. “Come, join me in my search for truth.” And, she took him gently by the arm and they went down the road until they came upon a man who seemed to be wandering aimlessly. “Come, walk with us,” said the pair.
“You will not find me to be very good company. My heart is heavy because I have suffered a great loss,” said the stranger. “And what is that?” asked the old man and the woman together. “My wife, who gave purpose to my life, has left me for another and I am alone in the world.”
“That is a sad and great loss,” said the old man. “Have you found meaning in your pain?” “My friends said that God is wiser than I and must have done this thing to make me stronger.” “Do you believe that?” asked the woman. “I try, but I cannot.” he said.
“Then come with us and let us seek answers together.” And so he joined them and they continued until they came upon a young woman sitting in front of a small cottage. She held her head in her hands and they could hear her sobbing. “Why do you weep?” they asked together.
“My baby has died,” she said. “She was only three months old. She was ill from birth and now my arms will never hold her again, nor will my eyes see her grown up.”
“We will weep with you,” said the woman. “Tell us please, has God revealed to you why we must bear so much pain in life?”
“No. . .my husband says that there can be no God in a world where babies die. He says everything happens by chance and that faith is only for fools.”
“Do you believe that?” they asked.
“I don’t want to. . .” and her voice trailed off.
“Then come with us and we will seek answers together from the holy and wise one.” Together they walked for a very long time. At twilight they reached a bridge. On the other side of the water they could see the figure of the holy one coming toward them. He was clothed in light. They were frightened and they covered their eyes. They wanted to run away, but as they uncovered their eyes and the light grew slightly less bright, and they beheld a face as care-worn as their own. It was a face that had seen as much as life offers anyone. . .
“You have come a long way. What is it you seek?” he asked.
“We seek the truth of suffering. Why does God visit such tragedies upon his children?” There was no reply. They studied his face and drew back as they saw tears running down his cheeks. At length he spoke. . “Forgive me. My heart is heavy, for I am bearing much sadness. I weep for one who has lost a brother; for a mother and father who have lost a child. I grieve for a love which once delighted but is now over. I weep for a love-filled marriage that lasted for many years and is now ended by the death of a beloved wife.”
As these words were spoken, they were all moved with an overwhelming sense of compassion. The woman took the arm of the holy man. The young woman came forward to wipe the tears from his cheeks. The old man grasped his hand tightly and the younger man put his arm around his shoulders.
The woman asked, “Why do these things happen?” He said, “God’s dominion is the dominion of the heart. There pain cannot be prevented. But it can be healed.”
“But what is the purpose of suffering?” said the old man.
“It has no purpose,” said the wise one, “it can only be endured.”
“How can we endure it?” asked the young mother.
“Only by sharing it,” was the reply.
“Show us how,” said the young man.
“This I have done. . .” He said no more and suddenly, he was gone. The woman looked up and saw that they were holding on to one another and caring for each other.
We all experience suffering in our lives, some big, some small, some that takes our breath away with its randomness and cruelty and unfairness.
But one redeeming feature of the pain we endure is our connection with others. That is why I am happy you are here and reading these words. I need your support on this road and I hope you are feeling mine.
Thank you Rev. Forbes for your generosity in sharing this poignant message of wisdom and comfort.
Amen to that. Thank you Rev. Forbes.